A few hundred longtime residents marched through Bushwick this morning to protest fast-paced gentrification and demand stronger rent stabilization laws and an end to legal loopholes. Students, clergy leaders, business owners and families displayed signs in English and Spanish, loudly drummed on buckets, and chanted slogans such as “Fight, fight, fight, ‘cause housing is a right!” Halfway through the march, the crowd stopped on Knickerbocker Avenue for a common prayer for “more justice to save our community.”
Prominent local figures also joined the protest, organized by Churches United for Fair Housing, the Alliance for Tenant Power, and Make The Road New York, a local nonprofit that serves the needs of working-class and immigrant communities in Brooklyn. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who represents the New York’s 7th District, called on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to put an end to preferential loopholes and specifically the “vacancy bonus,” a provision that allows landlords to increase the rent when a long-term tenant moves out. Under current rent regulation laws, a landlord can raise the rent of a recently vacated apartment up to 20 percent.
“Today, we’re sending a message to the landlords: you cannot get away with this,” said Velazquez, who recently sent a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations asking for an additional $10 billion for New York City Housing. “And to the state legislature and the governor of New York: Do what is right on behalf of working individuals in our community. Let’s stop the gentrification that is taking hold here in Bushwick. We will not allow for that to happen.”
Last year, Mayor de Blasio joined housing advocates in calling for the abolition of the vacancy bonus, but the statute remained in place when Albany renewed the rent laws in June. Some also wanted the state to strip landlords of the ability to deregulate rent-stabilized apartments once their rent reaches a threshold of $2,500 per month. Instead, the legislature voted to raise the threshold to $2,700, and also increased the fine for landlords who harass tenants.
In recent years, higher rents have forced out many low-income families in Bushwick and the surrounding neighborhoods, a situation deemed unacceptable by the city’s public advocate, Letitia James. “The message to landlords and to developers is simple: Bushwick is not for sale!” she said to a cheering crowd. “We need to preserve affordable housing. We need to maintain the diversity that we all celebrate. We need to make sure that low- and moderate-income families can stay in Bushwick.”
Since 2000, the city has lost 400,000 affordable housing units renting for $1,000 dollars or less, according to a 2014 report by New York’s Bureau of Fiscal and Budget Studies. “How do you think that happened?” asked city comptroller Scott Stringer. “The speculators came to communities and pushed out the people who built our neighborhood. Think back a generation ago. The people came to Bushwick, built schools and daycare centers. They raised families here and they did it with very little money. As soon as Bushwick became ‘desirable,’ the speculators came in, building large luxury developments and smattering of low-income houses. It is the great rip-off of our time.”
Alejandro Ortiz, an elderly Latino tenant who has lived in Bushwick for the past five decades, took part in the protest. Two years ago, his building was declared a construction zone and developers incited him and other tenants to leave. But Ortiz refused. “I’ve been the only tenant living there throughout the construction,” he said. “The construction is almost over. Because of my fight, I’ve been successful over the last two years. It’s been hard, but I’ve been successful at staying there. Now I’m gonna keep working to make sure that I don’t have to go anywhere.”
With many residents living under the daily threat of eviction, participants called on state authorities to take stronger actions to maintain affordable housing. “We have to continue to apply that pressure. There are hundreds of thousands of families in this neighborhood alone that are facing displacement,” said Stephanie Cancel, a Bushwick native and organizer at Churches United for Fair Housing. “These are students, these are working families, these are working parents, these are mothers with babies… If you can’t see how clear the message is, that things need to change, I don’t know what else would help.”